Can we ‘Build Back Better’…Together?

9/6/20

by John Stewart (my personal thoughts)

‘Build Back Better’ is set to become one of the phrases of 2020. Can, though, we ‘Build Back Better Together? Can we do it in as contentious an area as aviation?

It needs some creative, out-of-the-box thinking. Here are three ideas which could be win-win-win for communities, passengers and the aviation industry:

–       encourage airlines to operate rail services

–       change aviation taxes

–       earmark all tax revenue for investment in cleaner and less noisy planes 

 1. Encourage airlines to operate rail services. There are sound noise and climate arguments for people to be given the choice of switching to rail for short-distance journeys. And the potential is there for it to happen. It is estimated trains can be an alternative for flying at many distances up do 1000 km (Air2Rail, Bleijenberg, https://documentcloud.adobe.com/link/review?uri=urn:aaid:scds:US:3d9e8555-0eb6-4360-ae4e-e7ccadfad282)

Cost, good connections, ease of booking, travel time can all work against rail. (HACAN has commissioned a study on this which will be published this summer). An enterprising airline might be just the company to sort out some of these barriers. Could Michael O’Leary resist the challenge?

 But airlines, or even airports, could take it a step further. A fast train – their train – bringing passengers directly to their airport in order to get on their long-distance flights. All on the same ticket. No need even to change face-masks!

 If airlines and airports were to have a stake in running trains there would be less resistance to a reduction in short-distance flying. Good for the companies, the environment, the local communities, which would be overflown less, and good for passengers who would have more choice.

2. Change aviation taxes! Air Passenger Duty is not ideal. It is an imperfect tax. It is a blunt instrument. It does little to incentivise the industry to reduce negative impacts. 

 In should come a Frequent Flyers Levy. 

It is a beautiful tax!

Beautiful because…..fairness is at its very heart. Each person is entitled to one tax-free return flight each year but the tax rises with each subsequent flight taken. Most people in the UK would be better off than under the present system where we are all charged Air Passenger Duty. The little-known fact is most people hardly fly at all. Even though Britons fly more on average than other countries, more than half of us took no flights last year; 22% took one return flight; and 11% took two. That leaves just 15% of the population taking 70% of all flights.

Beautiful because…..it would cut demand but still allow ordinary working families the chance to fly off on holiday. The research suggests that, although some people could still afford to fly very frequently, the overall effect of a Frequent Flyers Levy would be to curb demand.

Beautiful because…..it doesn’t penalise people who want to visit families and friends in far-flung corners of the earth from time to time since it is imposed on the number of flights taken rather than the distance travelled. That may not be the ideal in climate terms but works for noise and local communities where the key thing is the number of planes using an airport rather than the distance they fly.

Beautiful because…..it is neither just a noise nor carbon tax but covers both. A noise tax would incentivise noise reduction. A carbon tax or something like the Emissions Trading Scheme would mean airlines are likely to give priority to cutting carbon rather than noise. A Frequent Flyers Levy would do both because it curbs demand. 

3. Earmark all tax revenue for investment in cleaner and less noisy planes. I’ve written previously that aviation has played a critical role in the globalised economy in the past, increasing prosperity and lifting billions in developing countries out of poverty.  That role will continue. And it is because that role will be seen as important that it is essential serious public and private investment goes into research and development of less noisy and cleaner planes.

 So there we have it: three ideas which together help local communities, the wider environment, the willingness of the aviation industry to change and the vast majority of passengers. We can ‘Build Back Better Together’. 

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